Origins of the Mafia

Jake Meaney

A tepid and almost unintelligible period costume drama that only tangentially touches upon the secret history of an organization and culture that valued secrecy and silence above all else.

Origins of the Mafia

Distributor: A&E; Home Video
Cast: Joseph Cotton, James Mason, Katherine Ross, Tony Musante, Fausto Tozii, Tom Skerritt
Network: History Channel
US Release Date: 2007-03-27

Notwithstanding the perpetual and persistent American fascination with and appetite for all things Mafia related, it is still hard to countenance the belated (by 30 years) release of Origins of the Mafia, especially under the auspices of the A&E Network and the History Channel. I’m not sure exactly what this series is supposed to be, but historical, artistic, or entertaining it is not. I guess someone is banking that this perennial interest, when coupled with deep pockets and gullibility, will justify the existence and eventual purchase of this two disc set. Huh? What's that? Oh yes – a sucker is born every minute…

Composed of five tenuously connected historical vignettes, this Italian produced television mini-series alleges to uncover the obscure origins and evolution of the Mafia in Sicily, but really presents itself as tepid and almost unintelligible period costume dramas that only tangentially touch upon the secret history of an organization and culture that valued secrecy and silence above all else. Though supposedly based in actual documentation – court records, local histories, notes of governors, and the like – Origins of the Mafia's narratives never seem anything more than the slight musings of a Romantically-inclined mind entirely lacking in imagination or scholarship. The opening and closing narrations (by the deceptively scholarly voiced Robert Johnson) of each episode serve to briefly establish contexts for what proceeds on the screen, but aside from providing a few dates or rattling off the names of the historical players, they are of negligible value at best.

The stories are unfocused and fragmented, wanting to dramatize pivotal moments in the development of the Mafia, but really just confusing any attempt at understanding. While usually it's better to show rather than tell, in this case a bit more exposition, some sort of historical groundwork, would have been welcome. There's no doubt that the history of the Mafia is a fascinating and enthralling one, but you'd never know it from watching any of these episodes.

Opening in 1556 with the story of Sicily's Gramigano family feuding with and ultimately besting the ruling Spaniards' authority, what should be a case of a representative example throwing deeper societal developments into historical relief quickly turns into something verging very closely to camp (and not even entertaining camp). Rather than going for a welcomely staid reenactment complemented by interstitial narration, this episode is rife with buffoonish over-/under-acting, stiff dialogue, and a so-awful-he's-brilliant leering villain who resembles no one so much as Tim Curry in lip smacking Frank-n-Furter mode. It's pretty darn hard to feel anything resembling historical gravitas when you keep humming “Sweet Transvestite” to yourself.

The episodes get better (or, at least, less awful) in the middle stretch, especially when the series settles into the middle of the 19th century, which seems to be the most fertile period of the Mafia's evolution. The stories here highlight the three way struggle between the poor Sicilian peasantry, the ever revolving cast of foreign governors, and the rising class of dignified criminals that seeks to exploit, and ultimately rule over, both. There is some dawning understanding here of just why the Mafia developed as it did in Sicily, mostly as a response to continual foreign rule for centuries, as well as the rapid acceleration of the disintegration of traditional ways of life in the mid-1800s. Rogue power, which may have diffused on the mainland, coalesced and solidified in Sicily, where it had no run off, and was, if not actually sanctioned, at least condoned by the local population.

Sicily seems at once especially prone to both anarchic, violent chaos and hopeless servility, a perfect cauldron for the cultivation of a respectable criminal class, ruling from behind the scenes. These themes, which emerge best in the generational story of the bonds between a declining family of nobility and how they fall under the thrall of the family who used to oversee their land, all in the wake of Garibadli's rise to power in Italy, suggest a possible inroad for those seeking a greater understanding. But, true to form, Origins of the Mafia squanders any scant promise it may have had in its silly and melodramatic final episode.

Produced in 1976, Origins of the Mafia owes its…ahem… origins, and impetus, no doubt, to the popularity of The Godfather and its sequel, a connection all but formalized by the series' employment of composer Nino Rota (a variant on the “Godfather Waltz” underscores each episode) and use of the same iconic text for the title and credit sequences as The Godfather. And yet formally, Origins of the Mafia resembles nothing so much as the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone – not in execution or theme (not by a long shot), but in conception and design -- an Italian production featuring mostly Italian actors (who are all dubbed into English) interspersed with random American and/or British actors speaking English.

Shot on location in Sicily (which really is quite lovely, in all its pastoral harshness), the episodes are gritty, dusty, cheap, but nonetheless authentic. And yet where the foreign setting and aesthetic of Leone's films transformed a traditionally American genre into a sort of universal poetics of violence, Origins of the Mafia, in trying to bring its national story back to its home turf, only makes you realize all the more that Mafia stories might be best left to the Americans.

I have no idea to whom Origins of the Mafia would appeal, though I know whom A&E is banking on. Lacking cathartic violence or memorable characters; given little time to develop its themes in any sort of coherence, context, or depth; and totally void of the sort of epic scope it so desperately is straining for, this sad little miniseries probably would've been best left on the shelf, as lost to history and memory as much of the Mafia's history may be doomed to be. Though, I suppose, there might be something entirely apt in a shoddy Mafia DVD set swindling some unwary fan's time and money on this inconsequential tripe. A pretty good scam after all, I guess.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

Here comes another Kompakt Pop Ambient collection to make life just a little more bearable.

Another (extremely rough) year has come and gone, which means that the German electronic music label Kompakt gets to roll out their annual Total and Pop Ambient compilations for us all.

Keep reading... Show less

Winner of the 2017 Ameripolitan Music Award for Best Rockabilly Female stakes her claim with her band on accomplished new set.

Lara Hope & The Ark-Tones

Love You To Life

Label: Self-released
Release Date: 2017-08-11

Lara Hope and her band of roots rockin' country and rockabilly rabble rousers in the Ark-Tones have been the not so best kept secret of the Hudson Valley, New York music scene for awhile now.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.